Our writing style guide highlights the essential principles to think about when writing for digital.
Following these guidelines will make your content more relevant. It will also make your writing easier to understand and to find.
People who come to the Council’s digital channels are looking for a solution. For example, they may need to apply for something, or to find out about an event.
Think about the people using your service. What critical information do they need to know? Focus on communicating that quickly and easily.
Concentrate on only communicating the information that people need to know and doing so in the quickest way possible.
Adding extra related information is not helpful. It makes it harder for people to find the essential information and to make sense of it. Keep pages short because scanning to the right information can be a challenge, especially on a small, mobile screen.
Add keywords first
Put the most important keywords at the start of:
- page titles
This makes it easier for people to find your content using a search engine.
Use the first paragraph for essential information
Put the essential information in the first sentence of the first paragraph. When people are scanning and reading at speed, this helps them decide if it’s the information that they need.
Keep sentences and paragraphs short
Sentences should be between 8 and 20 words long. Paragraphs should be short too. Usually just one or two sentences.
Make content scannable
Use meaningful subheadings to break up your text and make it easier to see the content of your page, quickly.
Use bullets to:
- highlight important bits
- make your page feel less cluttered.
Use plain language to help people with:
- lower literacy levels
- specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia
- English as a second language
- writing for these groups will make it easier and quicker for everyone to read your content
- swap formal long words for easy short ones.
Avoid jargon and technical terms
Jargon and technical terms will be unfamiliar to most people who look at your content. These words are harder to understand and slow readers down. How you would communicate information about your service to a younger or older person in your family with no knowledge of your work? There are specialist terms that they do not need to know to understand the service. You should remove those terms from your content. Do not assume any prior knowledge. If you must use a technical term, explain it first.
Using commas and full stops helps to make your content easier to understand. Many people with lower literacy levels struggle with other punctuation, for example the semi-colon. Using a semi-colon will slow down their reading speed and create a barrier to understanding. If you write in short sentences, you will not need to use a semi-colon.
Active writing puts the subject at the start of the sentence. This makes your content more immediate and engaging. It also makes your sentences shorter and more direct. Active language is easier to understand as it is closer to speech.
Passive writing does not focus on the person responsible for the action. On rare occasions, it can be a diplomatic choice for that reason. It can seem bureaucratic and you should avoid using it.
Just as you would use a spellchecker to help you correct a document, you can use automated tools to check the readability of your content.
Use an online readability checker
Hemingway editor is an online tool to help you make your content easy to read. It will check for complex sentences, give a readability score and suggest improvements. Aim for a grade of seven or lower to make your content easy to read.
Use Microsoft Word’s readability tool
If you are working on sensitive unpublished content, do not use Hemingway Editor. Use Microsoft Word’s Flesch-Kincaid tool to check readability. Aim for a Flesch reading ease score of 70.0 or above and a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of seven or lower. See more
How to enable Word’s readability tool
- Go to File > Options > Proofing.
- Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, make sure Mark grammar errors as you type is selected.
- Select Show readability statistics.
- Go to Review > Check Document to see readability statistics.
You can make your content easier to find by:
- using the words that your customers and clients use
- making your title and subheadings descriptive and clear
- putting keywords at the beginning of your title, subheadings, first sentence and first paragraph.
Use the words that your customers and clients use
Sometimes, the words and phrases that we use are not the same words that our customers and clients use. These words can feel too informal or imprecise because we are comfortable with more specialist terms.
Remember that your content is for your audience. What words do they use when they email or call? By using these words, you make your content easier to understand and easier to find.
If you would like more help with this, we can look at search analytics and Google’s keyword search tool to look for related words and phrases.
In the UK, we are required to meet accessibility regulations by 23 September 2020. These standards are linked to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, an international standard for web content accessibility. This means that everything we publish on our websites or on apps should accessible to people with disabilities.
As a content publisher you should:
- supply alternative text versions of video or audio content for people who cannot see or hear them
- describe images on your pages
- make sure that your link text is descriptive
- structure your pages using headings
- remove all PDFs and replace them with web pages.
We will give you advice on how to do this.
Be aware that your choice of words can offend or exclude people. It’s particularly important to be sensitive when discussing race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age. Use respectful and inclusive language.
Make sure that the information you publish is current and that you review and update it regularly. This helps to establish trust.
Do not use words like “new” to describe a service. If you do not update regularly, the content will be misleading. That damages the credibility of the whole site. Be careful when adding dates to content for the same reason.
Use a spell checker and ask a colleague to review your content to check that the information is clear and free of errors.
When you create or update content, review the related pages on that topic. Should you update them too?
Add related links
While you should not add unnecessary words to a page, signposting related content can be helpful. Make sure that related pages link to each other. Add links to external sites, where these are relevant, trustworthy and add value.
Web analytics tell us a lot about how people find content, how long they spend interacting with it and where they go next. Looking at the data shows us the keywords that people use to search and the devices that they use to access our site. This data can help us to show the impact of content. It can also help us to improve and refine content to offer a better service to customers and clients.
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Whether you’re one of our content publishers, a colleague from another service, or a member of the public, we’re here to share our expertise and the improvements we make to the digital channels you use.